DOING NOTHING: ‘Fudge’ pollution tolls won’t cut car travel
Early morning rush hour traffic on the Tyne Bridge, Image: Newcastle Chronicle
Tyneside transport bosses have been accused of doing nothing to cut car travel under plans for new pollution tolls in Newcastle next year.
Lorries, buses, coaches, vans, and taxis that do not meet minimum emissions standards will face daily charges of up to £50 to drive into the city centre from next July, but all private cars are exempt from fees under the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) proposals.
Car drivers were warned in 2019 that they were not being let off the hook by the CAZ because Newcastle and Gateshead councils also planned to halve the number of traffic lanes on the Tyne Bridge in order to deter journeys, but that idea has since been scrapped.
Gateshead’s Labour council leader Martin Gannon this week called for a “quantum leap” in people’s attitudes to cars, but Liberal Democrats in Newcastle say it is “hard to see” what the emissions-cutting plan does to achieve that.
The opposition party called the CAZ “a fudge resulting in the burden of charges falling on essential vehicle use”, saying the councils have failed to pursue ideas such as developing new park and ride services to bring people into the city on electric shuttle buses.
Newcastle City Council insisted that the CAZ, which is being introduced in response to a government order to slash illegal pollution levels, would “achieve compliance with air quality targets in the shortest possible time” and that restricting traffic on the Tyne Bridge would have simply led to greater congestion elsewhere.
Lib Dem transport spokesman Cllr Greg Stone said the CAZ had been “steadily whittled away to a scheme which will hit self-employed owner-operators and tradespeople the hardest and may also increase bus fares, but will do little to reduce congestion or emissions”.
He added: “They claim they have been forced to choose the option that delivers improvements in the shortest timeframe, but the reality is we are three years into this process and nothing has yet happened. It could have usefully spent that time acquiring sites for park and ride or expanding existing provision, and implementing electric bus shuttle services as cities like York have successfully done. There is nothing in these plans which addresses air quality problem areas like the Coast Road and Great North Road corridors.”
The Manor Park councillor also said that “nobody wants to see significant charges on city residents who need to use a car, but it is hard to see what the council is doing to reduce car dependency through these plans.”
A council spokesperson said that while park and ride schemes could be beneficial, they would not have been approved for government funding as they could not be proven to deliver the required emissions cuts in the shortest time possible, which is mandated in the legal notice served by the government.
Coun Clare Penny-Evans, Labour’s cabinet member for climate change at Newcastle City Council, said: “Our clean air zone proposals have been developed using data, research and the results of extensive public consultation.
“This work has demonstrated that these proposals would achieve compliance with air quality targets in the shortest possible time – which is a key requirement of the legal direction we have been given – while also addressing some of the issues that were raised by North East residents and businesses in response to initial proposals.
“Many people responded with calls for better public transport services so that they could reduce their car journeys, and this is something that councils have listened to and are acting upon.
“A number of schemes have already been delivered across Newcastle and Gateshead to provide better walking, cycling and public transport routes. We are also working regionally to develop a bus service improvement plan that aims to secure significant long-term funding and better bus services for local people.
“The clean air zone that is to be implemented will discourage the most high-polluting commercial vehicles from using our roads and will give financial support to those affected to upgrade to cleaner vehicles, resulting in cleaner air for everyone.”
Coun Stone also said that a failure to make community transport vehicles and school travel services for special educational needs children permanently exempt from tolls was a “highly regrettable tax on small community groups and the disabled”.
Those vehicles would be granted a two-year exemption for the CAZ charges after its introduction to allow time for them to be upgraded to cleaner models.
Details of potential upgrade grants of up to £20,000 were announced last week, but are dependent on the government agreeing to provide £23m of funding for them.
Words: Daniel Holland, Local Democracy Reporter
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